From Psychology PhD
to EdTech Research Scientist:
My Transition Out of the
(Formal) Ivory Tower
The academic job market is notoriously competitive–PhDs in my field (psychology) often spend years on the job market for the chance to land a tenure-track position. When I was in the fifth and final year of my PhD, I knew it was highly unlikely that I would land a job as a professor, even with 30+ peer-reviewed publications. Knowing how slim chances were of actually landing an academic position in a city I wanted to live, I decided to branch out and pursue alternative academic careers (see my advice for PhDs on the altac job market here).
I’d love to sit here and write about how I had a well-defined career plan to enter a specific industry, develop my skillset, and land my dream job. But that didn’t happen for me–and rarely does for most, especially for PhDs like myself who entered their program with all the intentions of beating the odds and becoming “Professor X.” I will tell you, however, that I was open minded about my career options and confident in my abilities as a scientist, which I believe allowed me to land an awesome job in an industry that I knew very little about at the time.
How I Leveraged My PhD into an EdTech Career
I didn’t actively seek out the educational technology (edtech) industry, but it turned out to be a great fit for the knowledge and skills that I gained during my PhD. If you take a moment to reflect on the systems you already use at a university – Canvas, Moodle, adaptive learning platforms, etc. – you’ll see that edtech is already well integrated in university functions. What this means is that despite not having ‘real’ knowledge of the edtech industry, my seven years working in university research labs, my three years of teaching experience, and three years of service work on the board of a non-profit scientific society had given me highly relevant job experience.
In many ways, my work now is very similar to the kinds of work I was doing during my PhD. My current role is Research Scientist at WGU Labs, a non-profit innovation hub that builds and invests in education technology aimed at improving student outcomes. In this role, I lead long-term research projects focused on evaluating the efficacy of new edtech products and educational interventions. I carry out the full life cycle of research projects, from design to dissemination. The key difference in my work now is that our goal is to disseminate results in diverse formats, which may include peer-reviewed publications, but also includes blog posts and publicly accessible research reports as primary objectives.
In my role, I also spend a lot of time writing. But rather than focusing on only peer-reviewed publications (which is still an important aspect of my role, just not the primary outcome), I focus on public facing writing (popular articles such as this one), client facing research reports, and conference presentations. Other aspects of my job include what many in academia would consider ‘administrative’ work (which, I actually quite enjoy) such as developing research guidelines and procedures for the company, strategic planning of our research goals, and general project management – tasks that are similar to what a Principal Investigator of a university research lab may need to do.
Because I was fortunate enough (in my view, anyway) to stay within the higher education space, although not in a traditional sense, I am able to draw on much of my content expertise as a psychologist. Although I don’t use the niche topical expertise that my formal academic research focused on (pubertal development and romantic relationship functioning), my broader expertise in evolutionary theory and human development has proven remarkably useful in my new role. I can draw on basic evolutionary findings and learning science to know how the human brain functions, how it learns best, and the unique challenges adult learners (relative to children) face in higher education. This knowledge base—due in part to my graduate course work but also largely to the diversity of my personal non-fiction reading habits—has allowed me to feel confident and useful in my company.
What is Life in An Alt-Ac Career Like?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my transition out of the (formal) ivory tower has been adjusting to working with cross-functional teams—our team is comprised of people with a range of expertise and skillsets. My days typically involve working with several individuals with business backgrounds and a data scientist with a PhD in physics. My weeks, however, involve me working in some capacity with artists, content creators, learning experience designers, financial analysts, and engineers.
This diversity of expertise is new. In academia, we work primarily with those who have the same educational background. Even when doing interdisciplinary work, we rarely encounter the type of diversity you’ll find at tech companies. During my PhD, my workday would rarely include working with those who were not psychologists or social scientists. Now, however, I am the resident psychology expert. I am the person who is consulted for my content expertise and my research skillset. I am responsible and accountable for specific research plans. What this means, however, is that unlike in academia where there is always someone waiting to challenge me and tell me that they know better, my teammates rely on me to know what I am doing. There is no room for imposter syndrome here.
Working with a diverse and dynamic team is challenging at first, but over time I have found that it is often more interesting than working in the expertise bubble I had become accustomed to in academia. Teammates in tech defer to me as the expert within my areas of knowledge, and I defer to them for their expertise in their respective areas. Unlike academia where collaboration is the veneer of competition for metrics and tenure, here everyone is working collaboratively toward a single goal. This may be a feature of smaller, new companies such as the one that I work for, but the change is refreshing nonetheless.
Career Planning for the Future
The toughest part of my transition out of the ivory tower has been reinventing my career plan now that “Associate Professor with Tenure” is no longer my career goal. Up until the fall when I began aggressively applying for alt-ac jobs, I knew what my career would look like. Everything that I did was situated within the context of that (academic) career plan–I was confident in what my career would look like 10 years from now. Now, however, I honestly don’t know what my career will look like over the next few years. And that uncertainty has been difficult to adjust to.
Unlike academia where you find a job and literally aim to stay there until you retire or die, whichever comes first, in the ‘real world’ career paths are dynamic, idiosyncratic, and undetermined. It is typical in tech and industry for people to change jobs or companies every few years, rather than spending their entire career in one space. Alt-ac careers appear to be a mix of opportunity and personal goals, with each feeding off one another to form an individualized career trajectory. Unlike the clear trajectory from PhD to professor, outside the professoriate there is no single career path—no predetermined steps that you must follow.
Currently, I have no idea where I will be in a few years’ time, what my job title will be, or even what industry I’ll be in. What I’ve learned so far is that being open-minded and vigilant to opportunities is crucial for success—and necessary for not falling into a psychological trap of “I have no idea where my career is going” (a huge killer of motivation and happiness). Reinventing my career dreams since leaving academia will take time and experience. My advice for PhDs new to the ‘real world’ is to focus on moving forward and embrace the uncertainty with confidence and an open mind.
Dr. Nicole Barbaro earned a PhD in psychology with a specialization in evolution and human development from Oakland University. She currently works as a Research Scientist for WGU Labs and serves as the Communications Officer for HBES. Find out more at www.nicolebarbaro.com & @NicoleBarbaro on Twitter.
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